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Exclusive: Kim Jong Il’s teacher on North Korea

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images First, we heard news that Kim Jong Il failed to appear at a parade marking North Korea’s 60th anniversary. We were told that Dear Leader was seriously ill after possibly suffering a stroke. Now, we hear that the man who has held his country hostage since assuming power from his father in ...

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JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

First, we heard news that Kim Jong Il failed to appear at a parade marking North Korea’s 60th anniversary. We were told that Dear Leader was seriously ill after possibly suffering a stroke.

Now, we hear that the man who has held his country hostage since assuming power from his father in 1994 is on the mend. Granted, that last bit of news is coming from the country’s propaganda-peddling press officials.

Whether or not this latest North Korean pushback is bogus, the Hermit Kingdom can’t delay its post-Kim fate forever. But what will it look like? A younger Kim stepping up to take his father’s place? Mass chaos and refugees fleeing across the Chinese border? Reunification with South Korea? It’s anyone’s guess.

Some guesses are more educated than others, though. So I asked a man who knows the regime well to describe what he thinks is going on behind the scenes right now. Kim Hyun Sik, Kim Jong Il’s former Russian teacher and author of a powerful essay about Kim in the current issue of FP, explains that the jostling for power may not involve the usual suspects: 

If proven true, the latest news that Kim Jong Il is seriously ill, perhaps having suffered a stroke, will bring significant changes to North Korea. Should Kim suffer an extended bout with illness and be unable to govern, the most likely candidate to fill the ensuing power vacuum right away is — contrary to widespread speculations of another father-to-son succession — Kim’s brother-in-law, Jang Sung Taek, 62. For long, Jang stood at the epicenter of Pyongyang politics as Kim Jong Il’s right-hand man. 

Jang’s influence grew so strong that he was purged nearly five years ago. But last year, Jang was restored to his former position as a key decision-maker on personnel. His two brothers hold power over the military and oversee the state’s most sacred site, Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum. Jang enjoys a good reputation among ordinary North Koreans and is widely respected even by defectors. Jang may even choose, as a “regent” to groom in the short term, either Kim Jong Il’s eldest or second son. But, for now, in the “day-after” scenario, the world can expect to see Jang in the spotlight.   

We’ll definitely be watching. Stay tuned.

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